Occupied

Matthew 21.1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The city was occupied.

The occupiers came through once a year with a big military parade to remind the occupied that they were, in fact, occupied. And they were smart about it, they knew that the religious festivals in the spring were a time when people got all ramped up, so they prepared to make a sign of strength at the same time to, as they put it, keep the peace.

And so it came to pass, early one Sunday morning, the roads were cleared as the citizens of the city hid behind the curtains in their homes, the parade began. The weight of the tanks broke up the smooth city streets, the ICBMs were pulled behind countless trailers, and scores of soldiers marched in step while shouting out their maniacal military mantras. 

It was terrifying.

And it was meant to be.

On the other side of the city, another parade was starting, though this was was different in every way imaginable.

The Teacher, that’s what they called him, had sent two of his followers ahead very early in the morning with the simple instructions to find something that would help them get into the city. They searched in vain, knowing that many were afraid of the comings and goings on the other side of the city with the displays of violence, but eventually they came across an abandoned tricycle sitting on its side in the front yard of what appeared to be a vacant house. So they took it and brought it to the Teacher.

Perfect.

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Hours later, while word of the military parade spread from house to house, the Teacher rode into the occupied city striding atop his tricycle, with pink and purple streamers coming out of handlebars. It was a richly symbolic act, entering from the opposite direction and in the opposite manner of those on the other side. Instead of riding on that which kept people afraid, the teacher came with the anti-war parade – it was a mockery of the occupiers’ intimidation and it was triumphant.

As he rode and swerved left and right through the streets, Twitter was ablaze with the news that the Teacher was finally in the city, and droves of people left the shelter of their homes to get a glimpse of the one who they believed was coming to deliver them. The numbers grew and grew, and the fervor swept over them as they took off their jackets and waved them high in the air. They even started taking flowers out of the ground and placed them on the road like a royal carpet.

They shouted things like, “The King is here! Finally! Save us!!!”

The further he made it into the city, the louder the crowds became, and the people were in turmoil – between the two parades that Sunday morning they knew not who would win.

Everyone was so preoccupied with the occupation and the signs and the singing that no one noticed the Teacher’s face, because the longer he rode on his tricycle, the more he cried. He wept knowing that he was enter as the prince of peace, and yet within the week those very crowds that shouted for salvation would also be the ones begging for his execution.

On Monday, the Teacher made his way to City Hall with other citizens. Knowing all that had transpired the day before, all eyes were on the crazy man with the expectation that things were finally about the change. He walked slowly, taking in the sights of the marginalized being pushes even further toward the margins, and the bankers lending out money with exorbitant interest rates. 

For three years he had been going through the surrounding territories berating the elite for taking advantage of the poor and the outcast, he once told a yuppie to sell everything and give it away, and that Monday morning, before anyone realized it, the Teacher grabbed a nearby lamppost, pulled it right out of the ground, and started swinging. He destroyed the tables and the stands and the signs of what was happening in the heart of the city, and the crowds stood in shock.

The elite and powerful, those who benefited from the occupation, now had their attention on the Teacher. It was one thing to have a crowd cheering for a man on a tricycle, but to disrupt the economic scheme that was putting money in their pockets was something else entirely. 

Something had to be done.

On Tuesday, the Teacher went back to City Hall and he began to teach in the open air. If the people were excited to see his entry into the city, they were now even more eager to hear what he had to say having thrown out those who represented all of the economic disparity. Of course, it wasn’t just the poor and downtrodden that gathered to listen, some of the religious authorities and the elite were there too and they kept demanding to know who he thought he was to speak with such authority.

The Teacher spoke in riddles, telling stories about one thing that were pointing at something else. Over and over again he used examples to show how the powerful were actually the weak and, worst of all, he called them hypocrites.

He accused them again and again of neglecting to honor the very things they talked about all the time, how they were the ones truly responsible for the occupiers entering year after year, and that no matter what they did or said or believed, there was nothing they could do to stop him.

The Teacher had quite a following at this point, he had taken away the means of economic injustice from those in power and now he was calling them vipers. They tried their best to trap him in his words, but went on as if they weren’t even there.

On Wednesday the Teacher left the city and traveled to a nearby hill where he continued to teach. Some of his followers made comments about the beauty of the city from their high vantage point, but he responded by telling them that all of it was coming down, not one stone would be left.

He talked about his new order, one in which those would be blessed who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, befriended the lonely, clothed the naked, and cared for the sick. 

He pointed at the children in their midst and said that unless the adults started acting like the kids, none of them would have a spot in the new kingdom. And he ended with his favorite catchphrase about the first being last and the last being first.

For those at the bottom of all things, this sounded like Good News, but for those in power in the city, this was too much.

On Thursday, the Teacher continued to teach and gather with his followers, but it was time for the religious festival so he retreated to an apartment in the city with his closest friends. They told stories about the past, what had led each of them to where they were. They shared a few bottles of wine, and kept partying late into the night.

But before it was all said and done, the Teacher took a nearby loaf of bread and said, “Hey, this is me, and I’m going to give myself for you. So when you eat it, remember what I did.” And then he took a nearby cup and said, “This is my blood, I’m pouring it out for you and the world. Do this whenever you drink to remember me.” They feasted and celebrated, but one of the friends left through the backdoor when no one was looking. He loved the Teacher, but some of what he said had gone too far, and he was going to put it to a stop before they were all killed.

Later they traveled to a nearby garden, the Teacher urged his friends to stay awake but one by one they fell asleep. So he knelt on the ground and he prayed about all that was going to take place. The last thing he said in his prayer was, “Let your will be done.”

And as he looked up from his posture of prayer, the betrayer arrived with soldiers. They quickly rushed into the garden and arrested the Teacher. The dozing followers ran off in fear not knowing what was about to happen. 

On Friday the Teacher was brought before the occupying Governor, the one who arrived at the city in the military parade. The soldiers and the leaders demanded that the Teacher needed to be publicly executed. But the Governor, strangely enough, could find no fault with the man. So he decided to bring the Teacher before a crowd of people and offer them a choice. They could free the Teacher, or a leader of the terrorist rebellion who was responsible for destruction across the city. 

The same people who were on the road less than a week before shouting “Save us!” now shouted with reckless abandon, “Execute him!” So the leader of the rebellion was freed, and the Teacher was sentenced to death.

Soldiers stationed nearby beat and whipped the Teacher right to the point of death and, to mock him, they covered him with a three piece suit and a striped power tie. They forced him to carry the instrument of his death, a noose, up to the top of a hill for all eyes to see. As the soldiers strung up the line from the highest branch on the highest tree, the Teacher looked out over the scene and said loud enough for people to hear, “I forgive you, because you have no idea what you’re doing.” 

And then they placed the rope around his neck, and pulled until he was hanging in the air. And the Teacher died.

Palm Sunday is a strange Sunday. It begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It begins with Hosanna and ends with Crucify. It begins with life and ends with death. 

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Typically, I resist the temptation to tell the whole story of Jesus’ final week on Palm Sunday because I want to encourage folk to come to services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But, knowing this year is a strange year with the calls for Social Distancing, I know not who will be able to join us online for worship on Thursday and Friday and I can’t help but think that if all we encounter today is the crowds waving their branches with their Hosannas and their hope, then Easter doesn’t make sense. 

Or, to put it another way, why did Jesus go from being loved to being dead? 

The passion week, no matter how it’s told, refuses to let us imagine it as some sort of spiritual or ethereal dilemma. It is fleshy and tactile and real. It takes place in time, in our time. It compels us to encounter the truth of the incarnation, that God chose in Christ to come and dwell among us. And even more, it forces us to come to grips with the fact that we nailed him to a tree.

I return again to the question of Jesus’ death. It is strange that Jesus was killed considering how we so often talk about him inside and outside of the church. Jesus who just wants us to love each other a little bit more. Jesus who just wants us to engage in active listening. Jesus who just wants us to spend more time in our Bibles and more time in prayer. Why would anyone kill anyone pushing that kind of message?

Why did Jesus have to die and why did he have to die on a cross? Well, because that’s the way the Romans executed those deemed a threat. Hang them high so all can see what happens if you challenge the powers and the principalities. 

Why did Jesus have to die? He wasn’t what we wanted.

We don’t crucify people anymore – we’re too dignified and respectable for that. Instead we isolate them in prison, we demonize them on Social Media, and we berate them behind closed doors. We can’t stand those who would call into question the practices and policies that put money in our pockets, we stifle anyone sniffing around our firstness and rightness and presumed righteousness. And we certainly don’t want anyone to ever call us hypocrites.

Or, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently put it, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you might find you get what you need.

Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another. He was killed because we don’t have imaginations capable of understanding what love actually looks like.

But now we do know what love looks like because we know Jesus and him crucified. For the cross reveals to us the very heart of God. The cross is not just some symbol to explain suffering in the world, rather it is the witness to the lengths God chose to go in order to rectify our wrongs. Jesus’ cross makes a people possible who see, know, and believe that the only true response to suffering in this world is love. 

Holy Week isn’t about us. It’s about what Jesus went through because of us. In the end, as we sit in the shadow of Jesus’ death we are given a task made possible as well as demanded by the cross to be present to one another when there is quite literally nothing we can to do save ourselves. 

Jesus enters the city under occupation and in the end occupies our place on the cross. 

The crowds demanded their salvation, and Jesus gave it to them by giving himself. 

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Amen. 

Subverting Expectations

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for Palm Sunday [A] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Matthew 21.1-11). Todd is a Baptist pastor serving Snow Hill Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Our conversation covers a range of topics including age differences, The Jesus I Never Knew, perfect subversion, the reject stone, The Princess Bride, paid participation, parades, unpacking Hosanna, and keeping the cross in Easter. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Subverting Expectations

 

Hot Under The Collar (with Fleming Rutledge)

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Three years ago we had an idea for a new lectionary podcast and we have published an episode every Monday since. Our first guest was Fleming Rutledge and she knocked our socks off (as usual). Today we are reposting that first episode because Fleming’s thoughts and comments are just as relevant today as they were three years ago. In it she talks about what she deems the “current preaching crisis,” the desire to appear prophetic, and the call to stand under the judgment of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hot Under The Collar

Get Your Ash In Church (And Leave It There)

Devotional:

Matthew 6.1

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

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Today is Ash Wednesday.

Christians across the globe are gathering together to hear words that the church has heard for centuries: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Those are the words I intoned this morning as I marked the gathered body with ashes, and they will be the words I will use tonight. And, God willing, they will be the words I use every Ash Wednesday until the end.

But what happens after the church leaves the church with those ashen crosses on their foreheads is a strange and bewildering thing.

I, for one, left church this morning and then drove my son to his Preschool. Like most mornings we patiently waited outside the door of his classroom, only this time 3 of his classmates approached me and, independently of one another, made comments about the smudge on my forehead while their parents tried to pull them away.

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On other Ash Wednesdays I have been approached in grocery stores and on street corners by inquisitive people as to what in the world happened to my head.

But there’s a good case to be made that before we leave the church with our ashen crosses, we should wash them off.

Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

Of course we can leave the ashes on our heads until they naturally fade away, but if we keep them just so we can be seen by others for our faithfulness, then we have failed to take the words of Jesus seriously.

My fried Teer Hardy puts it this way, “Wash your ash today. Let us not allow the world see our fasting as an attempt for pious righteousness but rather let our fasting be a witness to the judgement that was due to us but because of Christ’s sacrificial life we receive the justification we do not deserve.”

Ash Wednesday, and Lent for that matter, is a unique time in the life of the church when, rather than focusing outwardly, we are encouraged to look inward, to consider the condition of our condition, and to recognize our absolute dependence on the grace of Jesus Christ.

So get your ash in church, and leave it there.

The rest is up to Jesus.

Eve Was Framed!

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for the 1st Sunday of Lent [A] (Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5.12-19, Matthew 4.1-11). Sara is a United Methodist pastor serving Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lenten practices, the frustration of Facebook, dismantling the patriarchy, obedience, cosmic plans, one man to ruin them all, death’s dominion, funeral feelings, and the futility of resistance. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Eve Was Framed!

You Can’t Handle The Truth

Exodus 24.12-18

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elder he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. 

Matthew 17.1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Everything is politics.

Politics are everything.

I don’t know if it’s completely true, but I can remember a time when my family and I were able to watch the news at night and nothing about politics would come up. There were no brief shots of the Capitol building with soundbites of senators arguing with one another. There were no cutaway shots of political campaign rallies. And if there was a debate on television, it certainly wasn’t attended to in such a way as if people talked about it the next day like the Superbowl.

Whatever that time was, it’s long gone.

Now we can’t do anything, or watch anything, or read anything without the allure of politics taking center stage within the midst of our reality.

Politics are even seeping into the church!

So here I was in the middle of the week, racking my brain for something worth addressing in the sermon. I knew that it was Transfiguration Sunday, and that we’d be looking at Moses on the mountain in Exodus, and Jesus on the mountain in Matthew, and I was about to offer up a prayer to the Lord for a little bit of homiletical manna from heaven, when someone emailed me a YouTube clip in which two news reels had been edited together.

In the first, Rush Limbaugh, having just received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump, said that America isn’t ready for a man to be president who kisses his husband so willingly on stage. He continues with some other homophobic remarks before moving on to address the other Democratic presidential candidates.

In the second clip, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the person Limbaugh was talking about, responds to the controversial comments by saying, “The idea of the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump lecturing anybody on family values – I mean, sorry but, one thing about my marriage is it’s never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse. Let’s debate family values – I’m ready.”

Moses goes up on the mountain to receive a word from the Lord, to get the Law, and politicians debating the intricacies of moral law falls into my inbox.

God surely has a sense of humor.

Now, I’m not going to make this into whose righter or whose wronger, as if to comparing systems of morality would be at all helpful or even faithful. And yet, in both cases there is a clear understanding on the part of the speaker about rightness and wrongness, as if all of us should know the rules we are meant to follow and then we must follow them.

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The only problem with that, is that none of us follow of the rules.

And that’s a truth far too inconvenient to handle.

Whenever we talk about right and wrong, which is just another way of talking about the Law, we do so at the expense of how Jesus and Paul actually talk about the Law. For, when we talk about the Law, we do so as if it is a bludgeon that we are privileged to use against those we deem unworthy. We hold over the heads of the transgressors and we tell them to get better or get out. The Law becomes our litmus test about who is good enough and who isn’t even close.

But according to Jesus and Paul, the most important part of the Law, in fact the purpose of the Law, isn’t to regulate our behavior… It’s to accuse us.

The Law shows us again and again and again that none of us, not even the best of us, have the kind of lives and moral histories that are enough to meet the righteousness of God. 

Moses goes up on the mountain, gets a sunburn from getting too close to the divine, and comes back down with the stones tablets of what to do and what not to do.

The rest of the Old Testament is a story of the people called Israel who struggle to adhere to those very laws and, more often than not, they do the things they know they shouldn’t, and they avoid doing the things they know they should.

And if that were the end of the story, then our politicking and our moralizing and our finger-pointing would be fine. We could parade out the ledger books whenever someone took a step too far and we could hang them out to dry. We could saunter over to Fox News or NPR and give testimonies about who has done what such that some are torn down while others are built up.

But then Jesus shows up and ruins all of our fun.

The story from Matthew is eerily similar to the one in Exodus. A man is called to a mountain, he brings only a few companions, and it’s clear that whatever happens on the mountain changes everything. 

For Moses it’s the giving of the Law, but for Jesus, it’s different.

Peter was there and Peter was like us. He loved the Lord, he volunteered for the Lord, he showed up when he was asked, and he found himself on the mountain path listening to the voice of the One who had called him out of whatever his life could’ve been. And as the light shines around and through and in Jesus, as Peter takes in the sight of Moses on his left and Elijah on his right, he must’ve been thinking about the Exodus story, he must’ve viewed his present through the past. 

It’s no wonder he offers to build dwelling places on the mountaintop – that’s what the people called Israel were supposed to do. 

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But the mountaintop miracle is different this time. There will be no stone tablets, there will be no Law by which the people will discern who is right and who is wrong. Instead, there is only a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 

And how does Peter respond to this remarkable Transfiguration? He is afraid.

Today we use the Law as a set of principles by which people like us can live good and perfect lives. Do this and don’t do that and in the end you’ll be good enough.

But none of us are good enough.

Jesus says before all of this mountaintop madness, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will not enter heaven.” No one’s righteousness exceeds the Pharisees!

Contrary to how we’ve been talking about it for so long, the Law isn’t about living the right way. 

The purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.

The Law is the means by which God brings us down to our knees.

The Law is the recognition that God is God and we are not.

The Law is what made Peter tremble on that mountain.

For, at its best, the Law compels us to see ourselves as we really are (no easy task); to see all of our wickedness and imperfection, and to wonder, “How could God love someone like me?”

That’s how Peter responded the first time he met the Lord on the boat, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinner.” Peter’s proximity to Jesus forced him to see things about himself he never would have seen otherwise, and it made him afraid.

He was afraid because he knew, just as some of us do, that the truth of who we are is no good. As St. Paul puts it in Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one.”

Jean Vanier was a Canadian Catholic theologian who founded what is called the L’Arche community in 1964. He was moved by the experiences of those with developmental disabilities who were often ostracized and sent away to live in institutions far away from everyone else. At first he invited two men with disabilities to come live with him in France. He believed that, as a Christian, he had a duty and responsibility to make these particular individuals feel loved and a part of a community. Their time together led to the establishment of a communal way of living where people with disabilities began living with the people who care for them, rather than being marginalized and put away.

Since then a network of over 150 intentional L’Arche communities have been founded in 38 different countries around the world. 

Vanier wrote numerous books on his experiences, about the theology beyond the practices, and calls to others to learn how to live as intentionally.

Throughout his life, Vanier was regarded over and over again as a living saint. His patience with those who had experienced no patience at all was heralded as the paragon of virtue. Without his work, there is a serious chance that our understanding of those with developmental disabilities would be horrendous and not at all faithful, let alone kind.

Jean Vanier, at the age of 90, died last year in May. 

Yesterday, the L’Arche organization published the results of an inquiry which investigated the claims about the early history of the community and Vanier’s role within it. The investigation was carried out by an independent agency and they determined that Vanier abused at least 6 non-disabled women during those early years under the auspices of spiritual guidance through which he manipulated them and they experienced long emotional and physical abuse.

Imagine your abuser being regarded by the rest of the world as a living saint.

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None is righteous, no, not one.

That’s the point of the Law – on our own we can’t even fulfill a fraction of it. All that stuff that Moses brought down from the mountain, it is good only insofar as it shows us that we, all of us, are bad.

We’re all bad no matter how good we think we are and no matter how good we think other people are.

Because behind closed doors, when we think we’re alone, or that no one will ever find out – in the secrets thoughts of our hearts and minds – each and every one of us are more like Donald Trump and Pete Buttigieg and Rush Limbaugh and Jean Vanier than we are like Jesus Christ.

The Law exists to drive us to Jesus not as a teacher or as an example, but as someone who did something for us that we could not and would not do for ourselves.

Jesus is the only one who is fully obedient to the Law, the only one who can fulfill its demands, the only one whose righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees. 

Jesus’s love and grace and mercy has overflown on to us so that we, not because we’ve earned it or deserve it, can stand before God justified by Jesus Christ. 

When we come close to that grace, to the Gospel we call Good News, it brings us to our knees like it did Peter because we can’t make sense of it. If we are strong enough to look into the mirror of our souls we know that we’re no better than anyone else. And yet the cloud surrounds us anyway, the voice speaks to us anyway, and we are changed forever anyway.

The truth is we should be afraid. If our moral laundry were to hang out to dry for everyone to see it wouldn’t be good. If we were compelled to share our inner thoughts and regrettable choices, none of the people here would ever look at us the same.

And for some strange reason Jesus looks upon all of that and comes to find us on our knees and says, “I’m going to do what you cannot. Get up and don’t be afraid.” Amen. 

Natural Born Sinners

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for Ash Wednesday [A] (Joel 2.1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51.1-17, 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10, Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21). Jason and Teer are United Methodist Pastors serving Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA respectively. Our conversation covers a range of topics including nasty podcast reviews, 2020 goals, nudity in the Bible, confronting finitude, Frodo and the Ring, failing at Lent, obstacles, practicing piety, Ashes To Go, and the higher bar of faith. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Natural Born Sinners